Stories within Stories
A review of S. Morgenstern's classic tale of high adventure and romance, The Princess Bride, abridged by William Goldman
I was very excited to pick up this book. It'd been a long time since I'd seen the movie - one that I've watched repeatedly - and I loved the idea of visiting Wesley and Buttercup in written form. The movie is a modern classic. I wondered if the book could possibly prove the old complaint - 'the book is always better'. Expectations were high as I picked up a copy of the thirtieth anniversary. I rolled the book in my hand, astonished by it's unexpected thickness, and began with the forward.
This book didn't have one forward, but several. I imagine in another five years, it might have another, and even a second chapter of Buttercup's Baby, as the thing seems to be growing! Indeed, it was almost a hundred pages before I ever got to Wesley and Buttercup on their small farm in Florin.
Though the central story of Wesley and Buttercup is a straightforward adventure where our hero must rescue his love from the evil Prince Humperdinck - on top of this is the meta story of William Goldman, as he struggles to abridge the original version, written a thousand years ago by the prolific first citizen of Florin, a gentleman named S. Morgenstern. Goldman suffers personally and professionally as he deals with an emotionally unavailable psychologist wife (soon to be his ex), an overly emotional son he doesn't understand, and a pantheon of lawyers, publishers, editors, actors, and bureaucrats set to bedevil the life of the quasi famous writer. For Pete's sake, the poor man only wants to abridge an all-but-forgotten classic!
What I expected to be a straightforward adventure tale, with giant rats and a six-fingered sword, framed as a distraction for a sick boy, turned into a memoir of a self-doubting writer that only wants to bond with his distant son over a book. But the tale as written by S. Morgenstern was not the same read to a young, sick William! The original is too dense - as his father knew! The weighty satire and timely critiques of S. Morgenstern, are all but lost on William's own child - and so William proceeds to abridge the original, and cut out the politics. Except that he utterly fails, as he fills the book with his own consideration and trouble.
As far as Buttercup and Wesley are concerned, the movie is the better product. The dialogue is sharper and does not want for all the clippings that hit the editor's floor. The movie is exactly as advertised, a rich tale of high adventure and romance. The book version is not that tale. Although Buttercup and Wesley are also there, it is first and foremost the story of an abridgment, not of S. Morgenstern's original, but the troubles and triumphs of William Goldman's own life - or so he says - as he contends with the work of abridging what he thought was a forgotten classic.
As I read the book, I repeatedly came back to the same question: how much of William's story is true? Indeed, he claims even Wesley and Buttercup were real people, and that their adventure is based on actual events! I am now satisfied that William Goldman has fictionalized all of it: Florin, Guilder, S. Morgenstern, even his wife and son are nothing more than a fiction. For proof, I have scoured the internet for pictures of the starlet, Sandra Sterling, and I am sad to say that my search has left me empty handed. Oh William, I wanted to believe!
This book was not the page burner I expected, but something of a head scratcher, and a meta story from the very beginning. It is only for those interested in the struggles of writing, and the troubles of the industry. Instead of a simple romance, filled with the comic stylings of Fezzik, Inigo, Miracle Max, and the sharp banter of son and grandfather; The Princess Bride is a messy exposé of a confused writer that hopes literature can help shore up his personal relationships. I expected something simple and quick, but I discovered something dense and rich. The movie is for the child in all of us, but the book will only interest adults.
As I set the book among my favorites, I cannot help but think of the idiom, "the difference between fiction and reality is that fiction tends to make sense." William Goldman has created a smart and sassy novel that straddles the fence with a wink and a smile, and begs us to wonder where is that slippery border between reality and fiction?
Thank you, William. Over thirty years later, thank you.